Princeton University professor Jack Tannous presented an unconventional view of Muslim-Christian hybridity to a group students and professors Wednesday evening.

As the first lecturer in the fall 2012 Islamic Studies Lecture Series “From Late Antiquity to Early Islam,” Tannous informed and surprised his audience with his presentation titled “What Difference Did Islam Make? Christians, Muslims, and the End of the Ancient World.”

Tannous said the goal of his lecture was to address the religious transition from Christianity to Islam in the early Middle East and demonstrate the impact Christianity has made on Islam.

“In the 630s and 640s, Arabs swept over what is now the Middle East, and now the overwhelming majority of the Middle East is clearly Arabic. However, what we need to ask ourselves is, ‘How did this massive transformation happen?’” Tannous said.

For 500 years, the majority of people in the Middle East were Christian. With this in mind, Tannous suggested that many of the early Muslims of the region were actually Christian converts, a view that he said has upset many historians and theologians over the course of his study.

“Christian and Muslim interaction was initially on a non-elite level,” Tannous said. “Most of these early converts were not sophisticated theologians.”

Tannous pointed to symbols of Christianity in early Muslim populations and in Greek works written in Syriac as evidence for his ideas. Tannous used the example of Muslim people baking bread with crosses inscribed on top.

“Muslims were holding on to so many Christian ritual symbols, like the Eucharist, cross, Baptism or Jesus and the holy saints,” Tannous said. “It is like moving to a new apartment and keeping your old furniture.”

Tannous’ ideas were new for many in the audience.

“I wouldn’t have expected Christianity to make such a huge impact on Islam,” Arienne Calingo (COL ’14) said. “I think it is good that he keeps an open mind and doesn’t just focus on what the elites think.”

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